The Libertarian Problem
Libertarianism is a political philosophy that represents the defence of individual rights. The Libertarian Party of Canada defines it as "we may each manage our lives to mutually fulfill our needs by the free and voluntary exchange of our efforts and property for the value that best realizes our happiness." The Libertarian Party (US) describes it as "strongly oppos[ing] any government interference into their personal, family, and business decisions." Whatever wording is used it can be simply summed as some sort of individual freedom based or 'liberty' based movement.
The main thesis of this article is that libertarians cannot property defend individual rights and inevitably cut them off by the legs. For this reason, libertarianism should be rejected and avoided. That's not to say you can't be a defender of individual rights, but libertarians as a whole are intellectually unarmed with regards to it.
Libertarian Philosophical Foundation
Politics and political ideology is something that many people hold. We don't put too much emphasis on why or think to much about how one gets there. Most people that are political are too busy fighting their political opponents to care. So why do people believe in the politics they do? Why are some conservative and some liberal? What makes someone a communist? Well the answer is simple; ethics. I could continue to go on and ask where do ethics come from, but that's another discussion.
Ethics are your beliefs on how you should act. It let's you determine whether something is a good move or a bad move. Ethics cousin, morality is whether something is right or wrong. These are the fundamental driver of your politics. If you believe everyone should be equal (egalitarian) than you probably will hold a political ideology that is egalitarian - such as communism. It wouldn't make sense to believe that inequality is just and be a communist.
Libertarianism isn't a philosophy with a grounding from ethics in morality, but a political movement that ascribes to beliefs about liberty. The problem with this is that as a whole the group is sort of like an umbrella, it's willing to house many variations and degrees of liberty. This is why you'll see small government libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and other subsets including the anti-war, drug legalization and some odd ones like libertarian socialists or bleeding heart libertarians.
I want to illustrated this point with an example I saw at another website that I thought was excellent. Suppose you met someone that said they were a sexual liberationist. What does this mean by definition? The belief that all sex or at least consensual sex, should be legal. You might think to yourself what was meant by "or at least consensual?" Well some sexual liberationists think that all sex should be legal including with children, the unconscious or drugged, and those that don't consent, but some sexual liberationists are more moderate anddon't take it that far. So they think consent is needed and sodomy should be illegal. Sexual liberationists look beyond their fractional differences in this case to unite in the direction of liberating sexual encounters - despite these differences.
Now I'm not trying to pigeon hole libertarians. This is merely an example to illustrate the problem with the umbrella concept for liberty.
This is such a good example of what it means to be a libertarian. Like I mentioned this is just an example of how an umbrella concept works and I'm not saying that libertarians hold these beliefs. The problem with this umbrella is that there are clearly different views that are arrived at for completely different reasons. I would argue that often these differences are polar opposites that can't be compromised on.
The movement that comprises libertarianism is one that believes in liberty in some individualistic fashion. That's all it takes. It doesn't matter what liberty means, how or why you think liberty exists. As long as you are aligned this way - it's fine. The problem with this is that the movement isn't necessarily being tolerant of all views, but that it must be absent of ethical views - since an ethical view could exclude some under the liberty umbrella. There are libertarians that believe rights are a consequence of 'God' or they are part of nature. All these are acceptable. Without any ethical backing, libertarians are forced to moral relativism or moral equivalence with regards to how they approach situations.
Why should we care? How is this any different than other political movements?
Personally, I'm unconcerned with other political movements. If one is going to wag the banner of freedom they need to get it right. Freedom, liberty and individual rights are not some thing that can be properly understood, forwarded and defended with no moral or ethical foundation. Without this foundation, the ethical ground is surrendered by default. This is the libertarian problem. This is where it all breaks down. The lack of any philosophical backing is what pollutes it.
Libertarians are often described as strong property rights and individual rights supporters. Let's keep in mind the previous discussion and think about this. There's a lack of philosophical foundation holding it up. This foundation determines much of the preexisting.
Rights are either a political concept or they come from a more foundational place (metaphysics). Most libertarians contend that rights are more fundamental than politics - mainly because rights wouldn't be inalienable if it was political. A libertarian can certainly explain to you what rights are, as they are starting axioms in libertarian ideology. Free speech, property rights, you being able to do whatever you want as long as it doesn't infringe on another's freedom. But What are rights? Where do they come from? How do you know we have them? Don't expect to get an answer, except maybe "God" if they're religious. An atheist might say "nature", which is similar non-answer as God.
It seems important to understand where rights come from? It also seems equally important to know how you know a right is really a right. It seems like an important way to make sure you don't believe in a 'false' right. I'm not saying most average people would have an answer to these questions either, but if you carry the banner of individual rights and liberty - you should know the answers.
Let's talk about property rights to illustrate the entire nature of this issue. Property rights are easy to understand (ignoring where they come from, how you know). It's yours, to do as you choose, up to the point that it interferes with other's freedom/property. Here's where a lack of foundation raises it's ugly head again.
What is property? What makes property yours? What makes property yours and not someone else's? These again are important questions.
Now, I wanted to start with some libertarian views to answer the question of what is property and surprisingly this was more difficult to find than what I was expecting. Most discussions from the Mises Institute to Reason focus on rights and property assumed to be understood.
Many libertarians have put forward the argument of property as 'scarcity'. That's what makes the concept of property. If it isn't scarce, say like digital music, it isn't property. Where does the idea of scarcity come from in this context? Well, oddly enough, it is a pragmatic attempt to avoid conflict/disputes over property. Since property is scarcity, we pragmatically need property rights. Often they see an intellectual property right as a monopoly, ironically missing the irony that property rights are a monopoly to the property.
Ironically enough, due to this scarcity definition - I often hear libertarians speak of owning oneself. "I own my body, so I can put what I want into it." Let's ignore the philosophical dualism of that statement. A statement like that opens up a variety of different questions, such as 'why do you own you and not me?' or 'why can't I own someone else?' That's not me being choosy with my words, property really does mean something.
Truth: Property is a metaphysical requirement of life. I don't eat, unless I own the food I'm eating. I don't stay warm, if I don't own the shelter I built. Life is a self generated action of seeking the values that make life possible. Life is not possible without the products of my labor. The rabbit I catch in a snare is mine because I trapped it. The shelter is mine because I built it. Property is simply the product of the mind and the ensuing labor that comes forth to produce the vision. This is a popular concept John Locke stated.
The Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), also known as the Zero Aggression Principle (ZAP), is something libertarians bring up all the time. The truth is that it isn't a principle, but an axiom of belief. The literal starting point of all libertarian views. If you wanted to understand 99.9% of libertarian positions - it could be explained by this. I'm not overstating this point. I believe most libertarians would agree with me.
The idea is simple: do not initiate force against another. Simple. Easy. This is contrasted by retaliatory force, such as self defence against someone initiating force. Summed up; initiation of force is bad, retaliatory force is not bad.
The problem with the libertarian view of this isn't so much the definition, but the overall view of axioms vs principles. I said libertarians treat NAP as an axiom (an axiom is defined as the starting point which you have to accept that allows you to continue on to other reasoning). A principle contrasts this because it is something used to serve a higher moral value. A few examples will help illustrate this belief.
The Lying Example
A relatable example would be the concept of lying. An equivalent concept to don't initiate force would be don't lie. As an individual, you think to yourself - don't lie. You're selling your car. Don't lie about the condition. That's wrong. That's fraud. You're doing some work and what the client wants will not work. Don't lie to them. That's wrong. But what would happen is someone broke into your home and demanded to know where you hide your money? Where are your children? Or whatever? Should you think ‘don't lie'? Is that appropriate?
Would it be completely moral and right to lie? I think so.
This example is worth giving because of how fractured it is for libertarians. If someone threatens you with violence, is that NAP. Many libertarians don't view this as an initiation of force and choose to define force as the physics of force. Others will view this as actual force, but fortunately good reasons.
This thread is my favourite thread on the subject. I saved it because it's so good. The discussion between Patrick (who understands NAP as a principle) versus FTL_Ian (who understands NAP as an axiom - also host of Free Talk Live libertarian radio show). Here's a breakdown of the discussion.
Patrick: First of all, what is it you subordinate to what? In other words, what is the more fundamental value: YOUR LIFE or the Zero Aggression Principle?
Ian:Verbal threats are just words.[...] However, to kill someone in retribution for a simple threat is MURDER.
The contrast here really boils down to what Patrick says, what comes first; your life or NAP? You are an individual, trying to live your life and in the view of Ian, one has to give the benefit of the doubt (at the expense of your own life) to someone threatening violence. And Ian is not some quack on the internet. He's Ian Freeman, host of Free Talk Live and well known libertarian and anarcho-capitalist.
Truth: NAP is a principle for individuals to use in social relationships. It's a moral imperative for the benefit of ones life. It's what makes society civil. NAP doesn't exist if you're alone on an island. You don't intiate force with other peaceful people because it allows you to trade, grow, learn, interact and build relationships with others.
If someone threatens you with violence, the context is different. It's no longer a means of benefiting your interactions with society. One shouldn't think ‘thou shall not initiate force'. It's not your job to follow NAP to your death. Once someone threatens violence against you, it's no longer a regular interaction. It has become different.
Some libertarians may argue that the threat of violence is an initiation of force. I suppose that is fair, but I also regard it as an intellectually troubling process. How credible is the threat? How likely could they get the means to do it? These are questions one has to access to determine if 'initiation' has actually occurred. Intellectually, it's simpler to understand that NAP has it's place and outside of that place NAP doesn't apply. No games.
The last thing any person wants to do is put up their hands to stop a violent act, after the bullet has been shot.
The problem many libertarians have is how they view a rights violation. It's always about force. It's an easy description, but let's put it as simple as possible: expropriate value or compel someone to act against their judgement. Easy. This is why fraud is initiated force. This is why the threat of violence is initiated force because you can't act on your judgment. "If you come out of your house, I'll kill you," really does have an effect on your right to act.
Rights vs Non-Aggression Principle
Something that becomes quite apparent after looking into some of the axioms contained with the libertarian umbrella is the corollary of rights from the non-aggression principle. Rights, at least from libertarian fundamentals don't seem to be a thing. NAP is the underlying axiom. Thou shall not initiate force. Most libertarians would treat this as enough. If one is not initiating force than everyone is free to act and live their life peacefully and free. Rights seem to be merely a description of possible actions one can take when NAP is followed.
I would argue that rights are stem from the right to life. As mentioned earlier, NAP is merely a corollary of this right to life and living in social context.
So what am I getting at here? Well, what comes first does matter. What is fundamentally more important? Or another way of wording it, which one subordinates to the other? An individual's right to life or the deontological non-aggression axiom? As a libertarian would view the axiom as the starting point of their ideology the non-aggression axiom is more important.
This is where all the trouble begins. Take this quote from the Libertarian Party of the US:
We[Libertarians] believe in maintaining a military that can defend us well if we are attacked.
I hate being a stickler for words, but it is my only means of interpreting the libertarian perspective. There is an if statement presented here, which is "no action until attacked, then we act." This is a direct outcome of taking NAP as more fundamental than rights. If a government existed to defend rights as its main purpose (instead of non-aggression) their is a recognition that action maybe required before rights are violated. It's purely a causal understanding and difference. If lives are extinguished - such as they were on 9/11 - the government has failed to protect rights. Waiting around for lives to be extinguished before the need for action is a guaranteed method of never protecting rights.
Libertarians play the same game they do with the NAP and death threat example above, with foreign policy. They'll play some game of figuring out the quality of the threat - not for the protection of rights - but for the protection of NAP as the highest regarded axiom. It's a desperate attempt to never initiate force. From here you find odd concepts such as other countries sovereignty, as if a dictatorship or a threatening country has rights. A proper libertarian government would wait for rights to be violated - ie: dead people - before it would act in defence of those rights.
Truth: The right to life is the source of all other rights. It's your life and everything comes from this point. There's no reason to even have a non-aggression principle unless it works to forward your life and allow you to act in society peacefully and productively. The fundamental of rights is of the utmost importance. NAP is subordinated to one's right to life. There is no good reason to wait to be shot at before acting. Playing mental games to hold NAP at the expense of rights, only leads to death.
Due to the libertarian choice of NAP over rights there is a degeneration or extremes exposed with specific examples. In regular and normal politics the choice doesn't seem to result in any noticeable issue, but it lays in the less discussed. Below are a few quotes found from Murray Rothbard's book "The Ethics of Liberty" on his chapter titled "Children and Rights":
Regardless of his age, we must grant to every child the absolute right to run away and to find new foster parents who will voluntarily adopt him, or to try to exist on his own.
He may give the child out for adoption, or he may sell the rights to the child in a voluntary contract. In short, we must face the fact that the purely free society will have a flourishing free market in children. Superficially, this sounds monstrous and inhuman. But closer thought will reveal the superior humanism of such a market. For we must realize that there is a market for children now, but that since the government prohibits sale of children at a price, the parents may now only give their children away to a licensed adoption agency free of charge.
The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive.
Just read those quotes from a single chapter on a book titled The Ethics of Liberty by the literal Godfather of the modern libertarian movement. The last one is the most compelling, but they all have the same flavor of NAP coming before rights. In every instance, NAP is the primary and the goal. It doesn't matter that there is a metaphysical requirement for a parent to provide the necessities of life (a life they brought into this world), that can all be ignored because NAP is the deontological "duty" of politics.
Rights in Someone's Hands
This portion will be similar to that of child's rights because this concept is similar for adults in specific situations. Let's suppose you go out on a boat with friends and drive out into the open ocean - hundreds of miles away from anything at all. You're merely a guest on this boat and the owner has requested you to get out. You exit the boat to avoid trespassing, the boat drives off leaving you and eventually you drown.
From the libertarian perspective this was all lawful behavior. No aggression was initiated and that's that. A libertarian should know that this is really screwed up, but the goal isn't to have the right course of action - just NAP.
Reality dictates that this is murder. When you get on a boat and go out into the ocean, with regards to the property, the owner has your life in their hands. They can't just dump you in the ocean. At the very least they are required to safely return you to something safe. This is no different for a passenger on a plane - with the pilots. Or surgery - with the surgeon. The pilot can't just parachute out mid-flight, they need to safely land. The surgeon can't pull out your organs and just quit, they have to get you back to a stable position.
Subjectivism, Nihilism and Moral Equivalence
As I mentioned above Libertarianism is an umbrella movement. Umbrella allows many people of different views, ideas and beliefs to fit under the umbrella of liberty if that is what they claim they believe. For one to be a libertarian, they need to be somewhat tolerant of these different views, even if some may cross a personal line for them. The tolerance is partially subjectivism. Subjectivism is the idea that there is no objective value, but merely personal beliefs on the subject. Since we all just have personal beliefs on the subject, one cannot say their view is any better/valid as the next view. There's an aspect of moral relativism here too.
Some people would view this as a virtue. I would argue that this inevitably leaves someone intellectually unable to defend their position by default and worse yet, without being able to argue ones view beyond preference it is often left unchecked to wild assertions. Basically without any intellectual grounding, one basically has views based on whim/feelings.
For example, I was having a discussion with a libertarian recently regarding intellectual property. Right from the start I was told I have my views, you have your views on the subject. Not being a subjectivist I asked why because I wanted to understand the reasoning behind it. I didn't get an answer, aside from it being self-evident and somewhat of a pragmatic utilitarianism (which I challenged them on). The going point was that you have your view, I have my view and the libertarian flavor of 'do not apply your view on me - anarcho-idiocy'. Essentially I can live in my world with IP and he can live in his world of none.
Nihilism is one of those topics that people don't really grasp. Ironically, you may run into someone that is nihilistic in nature - yet they wouldn't even know if they really are or possibly not even know what the word means. As discussed above subjectivism, which is the idea that there are no objective values - just the opinions or personal views of each individual. Nihilism says that there are no values. Not that you have your view and I have mine - that there is no value. There's no moral value. Murder or going for a walk are valueless concepts. Neither is right or wrong.
The big difference between nihilism and subjectivism is a component of destruction. I like to call it an intellectual balancing, but it's best illustrated by an example. Let's say that you believe there are no values, at all. What happens when you look out at the world? You see values. You see a culture that views some things as right and some things as wrong (value judgments), you see big successful businesses, you see drug addicts on the street, etc. You either live a life (believing there are no values in a world of apparent values) or you start to tear down values to balance things out.
Nihilism wouldn't be so bad if people just wallowed in their own valueless life alone in their home, but it is the act of destruction that manifests that brings trouble. Value is typically attacked the larger or more important it gets. Nihilistic libertarians tend to attack specific things. The government? Oh yeah. Big business? Yeah. Bankers? Yup. Israel? Big yeah! It's always funny to see a libertarian marching hand in hand with a socialist in hatred of Walmart, of the Financial Sector and of the state of Israel.
My thoughts on nihilism within libertarians is two fold.
The intellectual requirement of having no intellectual argument for freedom is nihilism. The declaration of NAP as so is not a defense. It's not self-evident. It's not something we perceive in nature. It's just an abstract idea, devoid of any reality to ground it. Without a proper defense, one is left having to tear down all ideas. Why? Because that's the only way that libertarianism can at least be as defensible as every other idea out there. This is important distinction as it leads to the second point.
Libertarians try to throw off the restraints they see in life. Politics it is the government. In point one the libertarian is throwing off the restraints of reality and truth. Knowledge, truth and reason are restraints on people - and in the purest form a nihilism they push off reality itself. It took me a while to understand this point, which I originally heard from Peter Schwartz (Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty), regarding this. We as humans have perception of the world and universe. We learn things and gain knowledge. From this knowledge we can reason to come up with ideas. Once this process becomes valueless, one has merely thrown off the restraint of reality. This is the main reason why libertarianism leads to Anarcho-Capitalism - a non-system that doesn't protect rights - but a system of chaos.
The term moral equivalence means exactly what the words together allude. Wikipedia's first line on the topic sums it up well: Moral equivalence is a term used [...] to deny that a moral comparison can be made of two sides in a conflict, or in the actions or tactics of two sides. This is concept that is intellectually held by just about every single libertarian out there. Take two examples; Israel or Palestine, USA or Iran. In very typical political issues with statistical certainty the anti-Israel and anti-USA position will always be taken.
You're probably asking yourself, if they believe in moral equivalence why would they pick a side. There's a nihilistic tendency here to balance things out. When looking at the Israel or Palestine example, we can clearly see that Israel is the more freedom based, the more measured, the more civilized and the more correct in the situation. Equally, we can see that Palestine is anti-freedom, anti-Israel, pro-civilian killing and all around horrible place to live. The sheer degree of value differences is a problem. In the mind of a libertarian, they think Israel must have done something to Palestine. If Israel just stopped whatever it would all be solved and the Palestinians would all go back to being civilized. The same is true of the USA or Iran example. USA is a freedom based country, more civilized, and better in every objective measure of value. Iran is a theocratic dictatorship that exports Islamic Jihad ideology, trains and supplies terrorist organizations outside its borders. Iran wants nukes and the libertarian thinks to themselves - why not? USA has no room to say anything or police the world, oh it dropped a nuke on Japan, so Iran can have one.
And this is the same for 9/11 and blaming the US for it. As if the terrorists were victims, reacting to the evil Western powers. The point is that the libertarian goes out of their way to strip moral value out of the equation. In any situation, especially with foreign policy, the moral actions are removed of values and if an Israeli missile kills 15 civilians and a rocket from the Gaza Strip just injures a civilian - well Israel is bad 'cause math. There is a materialistic aspect to this that I would like to explore in the future.